Saturday, June 26, 2010

reading the Bible with C. S. Lewis

I joked recently that C. S. Lewis is a poor example for us to follow in reading scripture. After all, he does not adhere to a concept of sola scriptura. If you didn't notice, that post said a lot more about my opinion of sola scriptura than of Lewis.
I actually find Lewis quite an able guide for the faithful reader of scripture. Why?

Lewis never directly addressed the question of proper biblical interpretation in his published writings. The most direct word on the subject he offers us comes from a letter he wrote in 1959:
Whatever view we hold of the divine authority of Scripture must make room for the following facts.

1. The distinction which St. Paul makes in 1 Cor vii between "not I but the Lord" (v. 10) and "I speak, not the Lord" (v. 12). [My translation. Lewis only supplied the Greek.]
2. The apparent inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matt i and Luke iii; with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt xxvii. 5 and Acts i. 18-19.
3. St. Luke's own account of how be obtained his matter (i. 1-4).
4. The universally admitted unhistoricity (I do not say, of course, falsity) of at least some narratives in Scripture (the parables), which may well extend also to Jonah and Job.
5. If every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights then all true and edifying writings, whether in Scripture or not, must be in some sense inspired.
6. John xi. 49-52 Inspiration may operate in a wicked man without his knowing it, and he can then utter the untruth he intends (propriety of making an innocent man a political scapegoat) as well as the truth he does not intend (the divine sacrifice).

It seems to me that 2 and 4 rule our the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth. And 1, 3, 5, and 6 rule our the view that inspiration is a single thing in the sense that, if present at all, it is always present in the same mode and the same degree. Therefore, I think, rule out the view that any one passage taken in isolation can be assumed to be inerrant in exactly the same sense as any other: e.g. that the numbers of O.T. armies (which in view of the size of the country, if true, involve continuous miracle) are statistically correct because the story of the Resurrection is historically correct. That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the read (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.

Not exactly a post-card from the Grand Canyon. But I like it.
I like it primarily because Lewis is trying so hard to let the Bible be what the Bible is. Where there are difficulties presented in the text, he doesn't approach them as problems to be solved, but rather factors to take into account. His aim isn't to conform the scripture to any model of inspiration that he holds, but to read the Bible and form a model of inspiration that reflects the realities of the text. I like this very much.

His last remark hints of many of the problems in modern thought on inspiration and biblical authority. People often, especially when thinking about historicity, bring modern ideas to the table of biblical interpretation--ideas which the authors of scripture didn't share, hadn't even conceived of. We tend to think that an account is only true if it faithfully narrates what happened at a particular moment in history, and we reason further that the Bible, since it's true, does this in every instance. So when, for example, the gospel of John says that Christ is crucified on the Day of Preparation (John 19:14, 31), the first day of Passover when the Passover lambs were slaughtered, and Mark and Luke have the Day of Preparation on Thursday, before Christ's arrest (Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7ff), many readers are SOL. If truth is nothing other than historical accuracy, then the Bible falls short.
We also tend to think of true and false as straightforward opposites. If something is true, then whatever contradicts it is false. Then we read, say, Proverbs 26:4-5: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes." And we're in trouble again.
The biblical authors just aren't thinking in the same categories as we are, and we have to be OK with that.

Something similar happens with many of the ideas about inspiration that I've heard in church over the years. When the Bible uses descriptions like "God-breathed and useful..." (2 Tim 3:16), we somehow construe this to mean 'all scripture, that is every individual word, is inspired by God, totally without error in a modern, historical sense, without contradiction from within or without, and must be taken always only at face value.' Yikes. We try to incorporate all sorts of ideas in to the scripture, and we think this is a faithful reading of the word of God.

No. No, if we truly honor scripture, we need to let it speak for itself. We must not tell it what to say or how to say it. When we meet difficulties in the text, we need to make sure that our views can embrace them and proceed with whatever friction they produce. And, honestly, most of the teaching on biblical authority that I received growing up just couldn't do that. Doing this well won't be easy, but we have to give it the thought and effort. Doing this well also depends on our reading the Bible.

Which brings us back to C. S. Lewis.
Lewis's letter gives us a list of biblical curiosities that we have to take into account when undertaking a task like this. (The introduction to Scot McKnight's book Blue Parakeet offers a similar list of things he had to face while trying to figure out how to read the Bible.) Maybe we should begin here--we can, from here begin to search the scriptures for a clue to understanding them better, receiving gratefully everything we're given, refusing to ignore or downplay those problematic passages or words. That's the task.
And that's all Lewis hopes his reader will do. He doesn't set out a view for us to appropriate, but simply says, "whatever view we hold... must make room for the following facts." The task is still before us.

As we undertake it, I can only say, again, that I hope you will let the Bible to shape your hermeneutical commitments, and not the other way around. If we want to be people of the Word, if in faith we submit ourselves to scripture as indeed "God-breathed," then our obedience needs to be thorough. Our obedience has to begin with allowing the Bible to teach us how to read the Bible.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

review: Toy Story 3

This review contains all kinds of SPOILERS. Read on at your own risk.

"Death by monkeys."
This is a good start. Woody and Buzz struggle against the forces of evil under the hand of Andy once again. There's an attack-dog with force-field, a force-field-dog eating dinosaur. We hear Randy Newman singing: "... our friendship will never die."
And then sudden silence, with only the word die still ringing in our ears. So Toy Story 3 sets the tone for what will be a darker story, though, of course, not without its moments of light.

The darkness envelops us immediately as we see the toys again for the first time. We recall the droves of toys of the first film as we're faced here with the dozen or so who are left--a terrible fact that Woody acknowledges quickly. These characters have lived into a new and very different age than that we have seen in the previous films. Andy is going to college, and most of his toys, their friends and loves, are long gone. Molly has grown up into a typical pre-/early teen, with her iPod and silly magazines. This isn't a particularly dark world, but for a community of old, dusty toys, it is a lonely place.
Woody is a light in this dark, as faithful as ever to Andy. There was a moment of real jubilation when you saw that Woody was going to go to college. But, of course, that light was counterbalanced by the darkness of the attic for our other heros. It all serves to create some really interesting dynamics between the toys for the rest of the film.
The villains are an interesting bunch. I loved the monkey. Ken is... well, not surprisingly, very shallow. But dynamic, which was a surprised. Lotso adds to the darkness. He isn't merely a bad kid or a greedy collector; he's a toy who was hurt and then turned his back on all companionship, all goodness. He's so corrupt as to spurn all gratitude. His minions turn out to be not so bad, at the film's end, but Lotso is actually a character beyond redemption. This fact is only lightened by the fact that's he's a teddy bear who smells of strawberries.

All of these converge to tell an engaging, layered story. Old familiar characters only make you want to listen more. And it's funny. Monkeys are well-handled throughout the film, which is, of course, the mark of good comedy. It is also, as my roommate noted afterwards, simply not a kid's film. Pixar's strength is that they make adult films in the trappings of kids' entertainment. Just because the characters are Mr. Potato Heads and action figures doesn't mean that this isn't a dramatic and thoughtful tale.

But the movie does have some weaknesses.
I don't think the writers knew what to do with Buzz in this one. His best moments in the film are all moments where we gets an out-of-character Buzz: factory default Buzz, Spanish Buzz. It's all good fun, but the familiar character is too-often absent, and when he does finally return to the screen, he's nearly written out again by the romance with Jesse. We just don't see much of Woody's pal, the brave and devoted former Space Ranger.
The deus ex machina near the film's end is rather overblown, in my mind. Just in the knick of time, just as the fire was approaching. I was almost expected to be roused from a dream sequence at that point: they had just written themselves into the peril too deep for any satisfactory resolution.
That situation was the culmination of what I found to be another hole wearing through the films knees by the end: it just didn't stop. Like a lot of action-adventure movies these days, Toy Story 3 couldn't really afford to slow down for a moment. Perhaps the closest we came to a breather was the dawning realization on our heros that death was eminent, that there was nothing to do now but hold hands and face it together--but even this moment was colored by the fire pit before them, the long flight that had just deposited them here, a flight that Woody, only seconds before had finally given up on. This wasn't so much a reflective pause as the momentarily slower plunge to death and a chance to bait the audience before another daring escape.
Now, Toy Story 3 certainly does not suffer from this particular illness to the extent that other adventure films do. There isn't a clear need in this film to have a constant array for explosions and running and sex and explosions, with no rest for the weary. But there were hints. The film-makers capitulated a bit. No longer do we get Woody and Buzz, sitting through a long, painful night, awaiting Sid's violence in the morning, reflecting on their lives and characters, changing before our very eyes.

All of this, however, is finally but a slight blemish on the face of a excellent film.
The last moments are more heart-wrenching than anything in the beginning of Up, and without any sort of manipulation of the film's part. We are witness to one of the most unique of life's painful and natural transitions. Andy knows it and we know it with him. And Bonnie, our new child, is wonderful. Pixar has created a little girl as cute as any you will encounter in life... which is something between impressive and creepy. She's precious, though, and you leave the film hurt but so, so happy for this deserving little child.

All in all, Toy Story 3 is probably far and away the best thing in theaters right now. And it will probably win the Oscar for best animated film next year. It's fun, moving, and just good. But, for me at least, it wasn't Toy Story. The second film I've only seen a time or two, and it's pretty dimly felt. Enjoyable, but not something I know. Toy Story, however, I know, and this third installment is not quite as charming, not quite as touching, and not so fresh (unavoidably so) as its progenitor. That is not to say, however, that Toy Story 3 isn't a worthy entry into a wonderful franchise. I cannot say 'thank you' enough to Pixar for giving us another delightful film that upholds the good name of the Story. Whatever it was lacking, this final episode has a distinctive power, and it gives us, one more time, just a few more hours with some old friends, and of those I'll take all that I can get.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

an ESPN columnist on homosexuality in the Bible for CNN... what?

LZ Granderson, a columnist for ESPN the Magazine and, has written an interesting little article for CNN Opinion: "Anti-gays hide their bias behind the Bible". My title, by the way, is meant to communicate my confusion at this whole picture, not to say anything about Granderson's credentials or opinion. I think this is actually a pretty good article: it's well written, honest, and behind both of those qualities stands a really clear passion. LZ himself is a gay Christian, and this is a question that's clearly and rightly important to him.

His argument isn't anything new. Like many, Granderson is discontent with the popular anti-gay arguments of (other) Christians that always seem to make the news and the sandwich boards. If Jesus set us free from the law, why are we so adamant about the prohibition of homosexual intercourse in Leviticus? Why don't we ever raise the banner against other sins mentioned in the law, "such as making love to your wife while she's menstruating." Why don't we lobby for legislation that would punish adultery with the death penalty? Wouldn't that be Biblical and consistent?

Some conservatives might attend church only twice a year, but ask their opinion about gays in the military. They can find Leviticus 18:22 blindfolded, handcuffed and sinking underwater: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is an abomination."

... like I said, this is a well written piece.

Granderson concludes by asserting unambiguously that he sees all of the 'conservative' protest as a thinly veiled attempt to use the Bible to buttress our own prejudices.

I think there is a lot of merit to Granderson's reading of scripture.
The Bible doesn't offer any distinction between 'ritual and moral laws' in Leviticus, as people like to imply. Why are people ignoring some and running with others?
The Bible also, as he suggests, doesn't give any justification for the all too common, supreme-demonizing of the GLBT crowd. Homosexual intercourse isn't elevated above other sins in scripture; instead it's frequently mentioned as one in a crowd: you find it right next to envy, thievery, etc. I don't see any sandwich boards about that special place in Hell for all the covetous.
If you want to argue with me on this point, go find me the scripture. This might involve reading the Bible, which you probably have not done before.

But what's wrong with Gradnerson's reading? Because there is something wrong.
I could offer several different points here, but let's highlight a simple one. These highly publicized debates all seem to center around Leviticus 18 and the sexual purity laws presented there, and everyone acts as if this is the only passage in the Bible that addresses the topic... when it's not.
In my opinion, the most important passage in relation to the question of homosexuality is not in the Old Testament at all: it's Romans 1. Despite popular construals, Romans 1 is not pronouncing some sort of extra measure of God's wrath upon gays and lesbians--this chapter isn't a prophetic word about AIDS or some such nonsense--nor is it, I think*, giving homosexual intercourse pride of place in the list of sins Paul mentions. But it is, nevertheless, absolutely condemning the practice, and Paul presents homosexual intercourse as a model indication of the fallenness of (all of) humanity away from the worship of the Creator.
The conversation around Leviticus isn't getting us anywhere, but it also simply isn't necessary. The Bible is, Old Testament and New, very consistent on this question, and it does come up multiple times.

The problem with offering a stance on the question of the Church's relation to gays and lesbians is that this has become a two-sided debate... and both sides are wrong. If I want to maintain any kind of interpretive integrity, I have to completely reject the 'progressive' view that would affirm homosexual partnered lifestyles as consistent with the faith of the Church. On the other hand, if I want to seek the kingdom of God with integrity, I cannot support the political maneuvering, the clear prejudices, the unquestioned hypocrisy, or the outright hatred of various parties on the other side.
People won't always recognize love beyond uncompromising condemnation of a lifestyle--and no, I don't mean to imply anything about 'lifestyle choices' by that--but that doesn't mean it's not there; this is just a difficult matter to address and to be addressed concerning. I do think LZ Granderson can be proud of his handling of it in his column. But I still have to dissent. I just pray that, as I do so, I still manage to look like Jesus.

Any post on this topic will be too short, and it won't give the kind of care, detail, and qualifications that I would in a longer discussion. There are so many more aspects of this that I could address here, and I do not line up with the typical conservative viewpoints on many of them--this just isn't the place to go into it all. I more than welcome whatever remarks you would make in the comments, though, and I'd be glad to continue the topic, if need be, there.

* I am here following Richard B. Hays's reading of Romans 1 in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament (pp 383-89--though the entire chapter is excellent). Hays concludes, in summary: "Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God's created order... Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in the passage" (388).